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MBA Admissions Edge step 5: Acing your essays

Caroline Diarte Edwards of Fortuna Admissions - June 20, 2017

MBA Admissions Edge part 5:
Acing your essays

Your MBA essays are a critical part of your sales pitch to a target school. Imagine the weary administrator who’s already waded through hundreds of applications, with your essay being the only thing keeping her from turning in for the night. How will you capture her attention?

As former MBA Admissions Directors, my colleagues and I at Fortuna Admissions have seen many contenders do this spectacularly well. Others have done it unforgettably poorly. My first tip is to find the line between original (excellent!) and weird (lamentable). The candidate who described his murky sex life in his opening essay certainly raised eyebrows, and got a few laughs, but went straight to the “wall of shame” that appears every year in most admissions offices. Don’t let that be you.

Before sitting down to write, consider the big picture. As we’ve written previously in this series, your ability to be reflective and authentic about some fundamental questions – such as your values, strengths, goals and career ambitions – sets you up for success. In the end, your personal motivation and future aspirations become the lens for crafting a powerful narrative about who you are and where you’re going.

There are five recurring themes across the essay questions posed by business schools. Here’s a look at each and how to address each point strategically:

1. Why do you want an MBA, and why now?

B-schools want students who will get the utmost value from their programme by going on to achieve great things in the future. Stanford GSB’s motto is: “Change lives. Change organizations. Change the world.” This ambitious statement conveys a lot about the candidates GSB is seeking.

For this kind of essay, you need to make a powerful case that the MBA is imperative for achieving your dreams. Demonstrate there’s a logical flow to your plan and that the MBA positions you to take the next step. This is important. Candidates who seemed capable of achieving their stated goals without an MBA can easily be rejected.

2. Why this MBA?

It’s painful to witness students who don’t flourish in a programme because of a cultural mismatch. Each institution has a distinct identity and institutional personality—hence the vital importance of visiting to get a first-hand sense of the atmosphere. Some programmes nurture collaboration; others have a more competitive spirit. Some have a lot of international students and few cultural norms—you won’t fit in at all of them. Think about it from the schools’ perspective – they want students who love the school; they’re looking for candidates thatcan explain why it’s a great fit and understand what makes it unique. You won’t credibly make this claim if you haven’t got to know the school intimately.

Too many candidates reveal their superficial knowledge with vague generalities. Do your homework on the social, cultural, geographic, programmatic and other differentiators of schools on your target list. This includes personal outreach to students, alumni and faculty who can help you understand the nuances. For this kind of essay, you must demonstrate you’ve taken the pulse of the school, and that it’s an environment in which you’ll thrive. Show that you understand what the school cares about and that these values are aligned with your own.

3. What will you bring to the student and alumni community?

Now that you’re clear what a certain school will bring to you, describe what you will bring to it. It’s an opportunity to offer the insights and connections you bring, as well as the ideas that you can share and contribute. A school’s alumni network is among its most valuable assets. The admissions office wants to understand how your presence and participation will enhance the overall experience—for others as well as for yourself.

For example, when a programme emphasises its culture of entrepreneurship, it’s a chance to show why it’s a great fit because of a shared passion. Think about how you’ve contributed to other communities—perhaps at your previous school. If you’ve taken the lead and achieved something worthwhile, all the better.

4. What’s your career vision?

Your ability to convey an inspiring and logical career vision shows your commitment to the journey, even if the destination changes along the way. Frankly, admissions officers expect it will since an MBA should be a transformative experience that opens your mind to new opportunities and possibilities. At the same time, they want confidence you can envision how the MBA will add value to your career goals.

Create a path that makes sense given your academic and professional background, and the transferrable skills that you’ll bring with you to the next steps in your career. You need to articulate, either as a career enhancer or a career switcher, that the path is viable. This kind of clarity is also evidence you possess the abilities to develop a savvy job search strategy – even as your ambitions evolve.

5. Your strengths, weaknesses, failures and triumphs

For strengths or accomplishments, underscore your best attributes and relate them to what makes you an ideal MBA candidate, thereby circling back to your sales pitch. Highlight an accomplishment that reveals you have skills that are valuable in your dream career. And don’t stop at describing the achievement itself, but weave into the story the challenges you’ve faced and overcome along the way. Strengths should also be illustrated with examples that compliment your accomplishments – ideally from the last year or two.

Regarding weaknesses, please don’t prompt the person reading your file to snort in disdain by citing your cursed perfectionism or propensity to work too hard. These are transparent attempts to sidestep the question. Instead, look for something more self-aware and honest, and, whenever possible, show you’re actively addressing your shortcomings. Same for failures. Be sincere and straightforward without dwelling on the negative. What’s interesting to a school is what you’ve learned from experiences and missteps, whether you can bounce back from failure, face fear and criticism, and forge ahead with new awareness. What are the circumstances and pivot points that shaped you into an ever-wiser human being?

Taken together, the essay package should convey a strong sense of who you are as a person and what makes you tick, not just what you do for a living or fun. They should compel the admissions officers to learn more by inviting you for an interview. Prove to them that you are authentic and have a great sense of what a stint at business school will mean for both you and the community you would enter.

The Fortuna team are former admissions gatekeepers from top-tier institutions including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, and Johnson Cornell.

This is the fifth in a 12-part series for Prodigy Finance by Fortuna Admissions on how to boost your chances of getting into a top business school (see below). Stay tuned for more.

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